How Transparency Has Improved Politics Since Watergate

Created: 17 March, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read
Much can be said about the recent news regarding Hillary Clinton's use of personal email for government business. Whether right or wrong, the issue will surely follow her into any presidential run in 2016. Political opponents are taking the opportunity to score political points and suggest that more transparency is always a remedy to corruption.

This perspective dates back to the Watergate scandal, when in 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after evidence emerged that he used government resources for 'dirty tricks' in his 1972 re-election campaign. The secrecy that enveloped the presidency, and his administration more broadly, were blamed for the abuse of power.

In the years following, Congress passed legislation to allow government records to be open to the public, and thus monitored. This transparency was seen as a remedy to the corruption of the Nixon administration.

Although the first Freedom of Information Act passed in 1966, it lacked enforcement mechanisms to ensure that government agencies would follow through on their requirements to open their records. It wasn't until after Nixon's misconduct that the government amended the bill to introduce time frames for reporting, sanctions for wrongly withheld information, and more reporting requirements.

A series of other new laws were passed to strengthen these standards as well.

For example, in 1974, the government passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act, allowing the government to monitor federal committees and make their actions public. Two years later, the government also passed the "Government in the Sunshine Act," which allows the public access to records from Congress, federal commissions and agencies, and other areas of government after the records are reviewed to make sure they do not, for example, affect national security.

The transparency movement took a step backwards under the Reagan administration when he adopted Executive Order 12356, which allowed the presidency to withhold information easier on the basis of national security concerns. In his statement on the signing of the order, Reagan claimed that the law was meant to protect "sensitive information when disclosure could harm the security of all our citizens."

However, under Clinton, and notably after the Cold War, many of these restrictions were reversed.

Clinton also passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, which accounted for new, developing technology to help forward transparency efforts. The law required that declassified documents be made available electronically and be digitally distributed, a process that delighted historians around the country.

After 9/11, the public again saw a constriction in the amount of materials available to the public. President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 12332, which limited the amount of access the public would have to presidential records and governmental records from foreign governments.

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However, in 2007, Bush took a step toward greater transparency when he signed the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which increased transparency by widening who was considered a journalist to include bloggers and websites, allowing more people easier access to government records. Thew new law also established a governmental oversight office to ensure compliance with FOIA requests.

President Barack Obama promised to build on this move when he took office and issued a memo on FOIA early in his administration to streamline agency responses to requests, refuse FOIA exemptions which had been allowed in the past, and speed up the declassification process which had fallen behind the reporting schedule, particularly with presidential records.

While these laws have shifted over the years, it is still unclear whether or not Clinton actually violated any of the requirements during her time as secretary of state since government officials are allowed to use personal emails for government work. This policy is meant to allow flexibility for responding to crises in the middle of the night.

The larger problem seems to be that she used her personal email for all her correspondence during this period.

A federal record is meant to be any documentary material, regardless of physical form, made or received by the government. Over the last 49 years, certain exclusions have been made, but the general trend has been toward greater transparency.

Historians, however, have pointed to the fact that despite these laws, there is an enormous amount of classified material that has not been processed. The government also does not have the resources to fully comply with the laws that have passed, which further produces a strain on the National Archives and other agencies meant to comply with these laws.

Even as official laws might be passed to open more records, the amount of information produced seems to undermine that movement that historian Matthew Connelly and Richard Immerman warn will make "America's commitment to transparent governance a thing of the past, because the past itself will be impossible to recover."

Photo Credit: Orham Cam / shutterstock.com

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